Cindy Miller

2017 Metal Clay - First Place

Cindy Miller created a wonderful necklace using metal clay that incorporates her passion for nature. When she observed beaver dams a few years ago, she was struck by their complexity and wanted to re-create those same elements. Each twig in the necklace is individually made and then formed together with other twigs to make this necklace, just as they're built in nature. In "Cultivated Woodland," Miller very successfully re-created the elements of the beaver dams.

About the winning piece:

Goldie bronze metal clay and freshwater pearls.

I sculpt all the twigs separately and then assemble them with slip into jewelry components. After carving the extra weight from the back of the pieces and refining them with needle files and sandpaper, they go into the kiln to fire. The fired bronze has an oxidation layer that is polished off before the final finishing begins.

Beaver dams. When I was living in the DC area, my home looked out onto a lake where there were beaver dams everywhere. I was fascinated by how these dams where assembled and decided I would try to reproduce the effort with the metal clay.

It evolved off and on for three months. I actually made the necklace three times in order to get the structure of the necklace to look the way I had envisioned it.

What did you learn from the piece?

The whole process of working with little sticks was a very intricate experience. This design created a lot of negative spaces between the sticks, which has made me consider negative space as a valuable design element. This was something I hadn't considered in my other work. And, oh yeah I learned … patience!

Are you going to sell it?

I think I will keep this piece.

Will this piece influence your work going forward?

It has already inspired other pieces. They are based on this necklace. People have responded very positively to them.

What do you like most about the piece?

I like the way it feels when it is on. It is a little heavy because it is made out of bronze. I had to engineer it to lay comfortably on the neck. When you wear it, it makes you feel important because you can't forget you have it on.

Did you try your necklace on?

Many, many times. One of the interesting things about working with precious metal clay is that you can’t try on a piece until it is taken from the kiln. It's too fragile. So, I couldn’t get a feel for it until I had already put in a lot of time making it.

The Artist:

Where do you live?

Athens, Alabama, which is about an hour from my studio in Huntsville, Alabama.

Did you study jewelry?

Not specifically. I studied art and graphic design at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and archaeology at the University of Colorado. I was a graphic designer for about 35 years. Jewelry was a hobby during a lot of that time period.

When did you discover that you loved making jewelry?

When I was 19, I was working as a graphic designer at a design firm when we received a request to design a piece of jewelry for a client. I was assigned the job and loved the process. That was my first taste of designing jewelry. A few years later I started making a collection of earrings out of alternative materials and I've been making jewelry every since.

Do any of your other passions influence your work?

I am an archaeologist, so ancient cultures are very interesting to me. Specifically, ancient art and jewelry I find fascinating. I love the Egyptian and Greco-Roman periods. In my work you will either see nature and/or the influence of these ancient cultures. These passions creep up from the back of my head and affect the designs on which I am working.

Who is your design/jewelry mentor?

I have taken classes from so many great teachers but two stand out. Celie Fago was a great inspiration. Her work is so organic. Gordon Uyehara did some very intricate work early on and I remember thinking that I wanted to be as detailed-oriented as he was.

When are you most creative?

I don’t have any specific time. I come into my studio and I work everyday because this is my full-time job. But I am probably most creative when I have a deadline and there are problems to solve.


Tell me about your business.

Cindy Miller Design Studios. I sell one-of-a-kind pieces. I let my creative thoughts take me where they want to go. During the 30 years I was a graphic designer, I was working with other people’s ideas. Now I want to do my own work. About two years ago I was working at NASA managing the graphics contract, and I decided to walk away from the corporate world to become a full-time studio artist. I had been working with metal clay as a hobby for 13 years before and selling on a part-time basis.

What is your artist statement/design philosophy?

“I believe we all respond to art at a primal level. My art is inspired by nature. As an artist and anthropologist, I think about how nature has been depicted throughout history. I can’t help but feel a connection to artisans of the past that have taken inspiration in nature as well. I study ancient pieces for inspiration and I’m always captivated by the ingenuity, creativity and artistry I find. I just want to be a part of that continuum where artist leave their mark on the world.”

How do you sell/market your jewelry?

I sell out of my studio, do art shows and sell my jewelry in galleries. I rarely sell online. With metal clay, I think people like to hear about the process and try on the jewelry.  I do a lot of education with customers who come into my studio and I find that once they understand the effort I've taken with a piece of jewelry they are much more impressed with the final work of art. 

Saul Bell Design Award:

What did you feel when you found out you were a winner?

I was genuinely shocked. I was excited just to be a finalist and was not expecting it to go any further then that.  When I heard I had won, I was a little lost for words. 

What made you decide to enter the competition?

I am very goal-driven. I view entering competitions like a runner would enter a marathon. You work at it everyday, so you want to follow through even if you're not sure you could win the race. Because, sometimes you do win! 

What other design awards have you won?

I have won first place and best of show at several regional art shows and been excepted as a contributing artist in a couple of exhibitions across the country. Additionally, my work has been published in leading jewelry magazines and publications.

How did you hear about the competition?

I am a Rio Grande customer. Other metal clay artists I know also entered and encouraged me to do so.


What do you love about making jewelry?

I think it is the problem solving aspect of designing. Once I get an idea I sketch it and work through the technical issues I might have constructing it before I start working with the metal clay. This way I can focus on creativity without getting side-tracked by technical problems.

Studio and Surroundings:

What is the one thing you most love about your studio?

My studio is in an old cotton textile mill and the ceilings and windows are very high. It is really the light coming in from these giant windows that I love.

What is the one thing you would change about your studio?

And, yeah, those same giant windows in the summer time in Alabama make it very, very warm.

What is your favorite tool?

This little two dollar rubber-tipped shaping stick. I have lots of tools but this is what I sculpt with. I love the marks it makes in clay. I think sometimes I like it because it is so simple and it allows me to be like an artist from thousands of years ago doing pretty much the same thing to make art. 

Do you listen to music when you work?

I listen to light jazz or classical music. Nothing with words, just music.


One word of advice you received when starting to make jewelry/run a business?

I went to a PMC conference and will never forget what I heard there. “You can’t do everything, so either hire someone to do it or marry it.” So far I haven't hired or married anybody.

What one word of advice would you give beginning designers?

Don't be afraid to follow your instincts. Listen to your own voice.

What work inspires you?

Ancient art such as cave paintings and jewelry that was made thousands of years ago. I think about how difficult it must have been to create without all the modern conveniences we have today and how breathtaking the art still is ... this inspires me.

What achievement in your jewelry life are you most proud of?


What jeweler would you most like to have dinner with or visit their studio?

I would love to be in the workroom with the craftspeople who made jewelry for Egyptian pharoahs or the workmen that created the Saxon Hoard. Just to be able to watch them produce such works of art would be fabulous.

You can see more of Cindy's work at
Interview by Marlene Richey